The Problem With How We Solve Problems

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Soccer hooligans.

A friend once told me a story of a group of English soccer hooligans who went to France for a soccer match and were arrested for fighting with French fans. This had been an ongoing problem, and to put a stop to it, the French decided to make an example of them by sentencing them to death by guillotine. The first guy was marched out, had a black cape pulled over his head, and was put face down with the block on his neck. When the executioner pulled the lever, the blade fell six inches and then stopped. Because you can’t be executed twice, the man was released. The same thing happened with the second guy. When the third one arrived, he asked not to be caped because he suffers from claustrophobia, and asked to lie on his back so he could see the blade coming down. Just as the executioner was about to pull the lever, he shouted “stop, I can see the problem”! Some problems are better when they remain unsolved.

We use the term “problem solving” widely, which, in general, means there is an identifiable problem and a solution to it. The word “problem” is a noun, hence a problem is a thing, and means a question or situation we don’t understand, whereas “solve” is a verb, in other words something we do, and means finding a solution, answer, or explanation.

We look at problems as static in the West because our outlook on life is mechanistic, which means they can be solved, but from a complexity perspective they are more likely fluid and ongoing, which creates problems for solving them.

Some problems are simple, “what are we having for dinner tonight”, some are complicated, how to build a jetliner, and some complex, such as global warming, the healthcare dilemma, etc., which makes them difficult to understand and describe. In other words, a problem is not a thing, what you deal with depends on a context and your perspective of the world we live in, which hugely impacts on if you can solve the problem and how.

The same applies to solving. From a mechanistic perspective, once you identified the problem, you can solve it by following steps, or a method, accurately. From a complexity perspective, you don’t know enough about the problem situation to begin with, hence you can’t know what method to follow until you start interacting with the problem. Interacting changes the problem situation, which changes how we interact with it, hence the steps or method may become obsolete and has to be changed while interacting. Additionally, many complex problems have no endpoint, in other words, they are never solved in a mechanistic sense.

In short, in a mechanistic world, things are stable until a problem crops up, we solve it, which returns everything back to stability. A complex world is unstable, fluid, and in constant flux, which means we constantly interact with it, observe the outcome, adjust our actions, learn from it, etc. In other words, we act in a world presenting us with a continuous stream of questions and problems we must react to, solving problems and questions is ongoing, hence the ways we attempt to solve them is constantly changing too.

The human social world throws another wrinkle into problem solving. Solving simple problems by yourself is relatively simple, but once you start interacting with others and the number of interrelationships and interactions rise, the social complexity involved increases exponentially. You now must solve the human interrelationships, interactions, and different perspectives in addition to the problem situation, which is what we encounter in most important questions and problems facing human society. Laser focused left hemisphere dominant approaches try to simplify that reality and the complexity involved by ignoring that complexity, but, ultimately, it is what determines whether you succeed or fail. A bigger problem is mechanistic problem solving is done from the outside for the very complex social world it ignores, with predictable consequences.

That is the “what” of problem solving, but how do we humans solve our problems? Malcolm Gladwell popularized Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 thinking, which, in a simplified form, means we make most decisions automatically with what Gigerenzer calls fast and frugal heuristics, or simple mental rules that evolved to make most decisions quick and easy, expending little energy, as opposed to having to sit down and figure things out. As an aside, physicians diagnose using system 1 rules, which can become problematic.

The problem with slow problem solving is it is slow and takes a lot of mental energy, hence we avoid it when we can. Our mechanistic bias towards action and type 1 thinking creates more problems than it solves when dealing with complex phenomena. The result is layers of small mistakes you can’t see immediately, adding to the complexity of the issue, in other words, the problem-solving approach complicates the problem and makes it worse.

You need a different approach and skill-set when dealing with complex problems as Dörner showed. It pays to gather enough information for creating a better picture of the problem situation, in other words type 2 thinking, act incrementally, test solutions, and attend to interconnections, not disconnect and disregard them. You must think about what you do, and what’s happening, and adjust your behavior accordingly, and you can’t work haphazardly. People who manage complex problems is not smarter or have special personalities, they are better at tolerating uncertainty, and learning from experience.

Dörner’s emphasis is on functional complexity, which puts the equally complex social component aside. Note, functional and social complexity is a single entity, splitting them is just a perspective. There is virtually no research and publications about the latter, and very few people understand it and its impact on problem solving, let alone know how to manage it.

That’s what we face in healthcare and the many other areas with complex problems. As long as we persist in thinking of problem solving mechanistically, we not only will keep spinning tires without moving, we’ll also keep sparking new fires making things worse. What’s holding us back is the social complexity and dynamics within it I’m talking about, which we keep ignoring at our own peril, because we don’t understand it and we won’t make any effort to do so. One day, perhaps too late, it will catch up with us. Kassandra’s curse is although this is true, we can’t and won’t believe it when we hear it.